Today in History – September 25

Novelist William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. He spent much of his youth in Oxford where his father was employed as the secretary and then business manager for the University of Mississippi.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

From Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III, by William Faulkner

Portrait of William Faulkner. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Dec. 11, 1954. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

Faulkner was the creator of the mythical Yoknapatawpha County External in Mississippi. He portrayed a landscape of universal themes through decayed Southern white gentry, merchants, farmers, poor whites, and persecuted blacks. In stories notable for their experimental narrative techniques, he wrote about the troubled legacy of race, the conflicts between the values of the agrarian Old South and the industrial New South, and dysfunction both within the family and within the larger community. Faulkner’s characters confront institutionalized racial violence and intimate crime while struggling to live with dignity, meaning, and compassion, often in the face of degradation and humiliation.

William Faulkner left high school before graduating and attended university only briefly, dropping out in the first semester of his sophomore year. Despondent over a love affair and inspired by aspirations for military glory, he joined the Canadian Royal Air Force but never saw active service. Upon returning to Oxford, he was appointed postmaster of the University of Mississippi, a job he was unable to maintain.

Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all. . . .
“Now I want you to tell me just one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”
“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said.
I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark;I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

From Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Faulkner lived for a short time in New Orleans, where he received encouragement from writer Sherwood Anderson. He also traveled to France and Italy, though he made no attempt to meet any of the Lost Generation of expatriate American artists who had settled in Europe after World War I. Aside from these ventures and stints as a Hollywood screenwriter, Faulkner spent the remainder of his life in Mississippi and Virginia, writing brilliantly and prolifically in isolation from his peers.

After his third novel was rejected by the publisher Horace Liveright for its “diffuse” plot and characterization, Faulkner assumed that his work would not receive public recognition, but he was determined to continue writing for his own fulfillment. In fact, he achieved notice with his very next novel, The Sound and the Fury, which was praised by most reviewers upon its publication in October 1929. He continued to publish novels and poems for the next three decades. Faulkner was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes External, in 1955 for A Fable, and in 1963 for The Reivers. He received the Nobel Prize External for Literature in 1949 “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” During his brief acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke of the human condition and the writer’s duty in the nuclear era:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.

William Faulkner, “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech External

Two women walking along street, Natchez, Mississippi . Ben Shahn, photographer, Oct. 1935. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division
Wife of Negro sharecropper, Lee County, Mississippi. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, Aug. 1935. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division
Playing dominoes or cards in front of drug store in center of town, in Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott, photographer, Oct. 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

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Today in History – September 24

Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, best known for his classic American novel The Great Gatsby, was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Named for his distant cousin Francis Scott Key, author of the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Fitzgerald was descended, on his father’s side, from a long line of Marylanders. His mother, Mary McQuillan, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who made his fortune as a wholesale grocer in St. Paul.

Portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, June 4, 1937. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. New York, C. Scribner’s sons, 1925.

Fitzgerald achieved fame almost overnight with the 1920 publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. The novel, which draws heavily upon his years at Princeton, tells the story of a young man’s quest for fulfillment in love and career. The success of this novel enabled Fitzgerald to marry Zelda Sayre, whom he had met while stationed at Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama. Over the course of the next decade and a half, while struggling to cope with the demons of his alcoholism and her emerging mental illness, the Fitzgeralds enjoyed a life of literary celebrity among the American artists and writers who had expatriated to Paris after the First World War. The American artistic community in Europe included such notable figures as Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein.

Panoramic view of St. Paul, Minn. Haines Photo Co., 1911. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1924, Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, considered his greatest work. Although it initially met with little commercial success, the novel about the American aspiration for material success has become one of the most popular, widely read, and critically acclaimed works of fiction in the nation’s literature.

Fitzgerald continued to publish novels and stories during the 1920s and 1930s. By 1936, however, both his marriage and his health were deteriorating. He spent the years 1936-1937 in the vicinity of Asheville, North Carolina, where his wife was receiving psychiatric treatment for recurrent schizophrenic episodes. For the last years of his life, Fitzgerald lived in Hollywood, earning his living as a screenwriter. Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1940 at the age of forty-five, leaving his final novel, The Last Tycoon, unfinished.

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Today in History – September 23

Mary Church Terrell—educator, political activist, and first president of the National Association of Colored Women—was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. An 1884 graduate of Oberlin College External, America’s first college to admit women and amongst the first to admit students of all races, Terrell was one of the first American women of African descent to graduate from college. She earned her master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race…Desperately and continuously they are forced to fight that opposition, born of a cruel, unreasonable prejudice which neither their merit nor their necessity seems able to subdue.

The Progress of Colored Women,” by Mary Church Terrell. Washington, D.C.: Smith Brothers, Printers, [1898]. African-American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Mary Church Terrell, three-quarter length portrait…. ca. 1880-1900. Free to Use and Reuse: African-American Women Changemakers. Prints & Photographs Division

Terrell began her career as a teacher. After her marriage to Washington lawyer Robert Terrell, she became active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association where she became a spokesperson for the particular concerns of African-American women. A passionate advocate of education, Terrell sold her speeches during this period in order to raise money for a kindergarten. In 1895, she was the first African-American woman to serve on the Washington, D.C., school board, serving until 1905 and again from 1906 to 1911.

Black women’s groups were routinely excluded from national women’s organizations during the late nineteenth century. It was their exclusion from participation in the planning of the 1893 World’s Fair, however, that spurred Terrell and other black women leaders to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Also known as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, it was created to serve as an umbrella organization for black women’s groups throughout the country. Under Terrell’s leadership, the NACW worked to achieve social and educational reform and to end discrimination based on gender and race. In 1940, Terrell wrote her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, a work that used her own more than seventy years of life as an example of the difficulties that blacks faced in a predominantly white society.

Oberlin College scene, student body & faculty in front of Memorial Hall, 1906. R.W. Johnston, 1906. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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Today in History – September 22

On September 22, 1862, partly in response to the heavy losses inflicted at the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, threatening to free all the enslaved people in the states in rebellion if those states did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863. The extent of the Proclamation’s practical effect has been debated, as it was legally binding only in territory not under Union control. In the short term, it amounted to no more than a statement of policy for the federal army as it moved into Southern territory.

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet / painted by F.B. Carpenter; engraved by A.H. Ritchie. c1866. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

Never in all the march of time,
Dawned on this land a more sublime
A grand event than that for which
To-day the lowly and the rich,
Doth humbly bow and meekly send
Their orisons to God, their Friend.

A Poem read by J. Madison Bell. Published in The Centennial Jubilee of Freedom at Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, September 22, 1888. p.87. Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing House, 1888. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Preliminary Draft of Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln, July 22, 1862. Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Manuscript Division.

In larger terms, however, Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was enormous. This event, combined with the determination on the part of African Americans to flee across Union lines as the federal army advanced into Southern territory, framed the Civil War as a struggle for freedom and against slavery. In more practical terms, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation prevented European nations from intervening in the war on behalf of the Confederacy and enabled the Union to enlist nearly 180,000 African American soldiers to fight between January 1, 1863 and the conclusion of the war.

Emancipation Day, Richmond, Va. 1905. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Throughout the intervening years, the public has commemorated the Emancipation Proclamation with marches and celebrations. In American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, two people share their memories of these events. “Mrs. Ella Boney,” born in Henry Country, Kentucky on October 12, 1869, remembers childhood celebrations in Hill City, Kansas in her 1938 interview:

One of the biggest events of the year for Negroes in Kansas is the Emancipation Proclamation picnic every fourth of August. We celebrate four days in a large grove just out side of Nicodemus, and Negroes come from all over the state. There are about twelve barbecue pits dug and they are going all day barbecuing chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, sides of beef, etc.

[Mrs. Ella Boney]. Albert Burks, interviewer; Lincoln, Nebraska: November 26, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

In a 1939 interview, John Wesley Dobbs, a Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, recounts his Emancipation Day speech for “Wings over Jordan,” a radio program heard every Sunday morning in the 1930s on station WGAR in Cleveland:

Over the doorway of the nation’s Supreme Court Building in Washington, D. C. are engraved four words, ‘Equal Justice Under Law’. This beautiful American ideal is what the Negroes want to see operative and effective from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf – nothing more or less.

[I Saw the Stars]. John Wesley Dobbs, interviewee; Geneva Tonsill, interviewer; Atlanta, Georgia, December 2, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

From African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection come speeches and sermons, including an oration delivered by Reverend A.L. DeMond to members of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on January 1, 1900. In “The Negro Element in American Life: An Oration,” DeMond describes the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation as

…two great patriotic, wise and humane state papers…Both were born in days of doubt and darkness. Both were the outcome of injustice overleaping the bounds of right and reason. The one was essential to the fulfilling of the other. Without the Declaration of Independence the nation could not have been born; without the Emancipation Proclamation it could not have lived.

The Negro Element in American Life: An Oration,” delivered by Rev. A.L. DeMond in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, Jan. 1, 1900. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Printing Company, 1900. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

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Today in History – September 21

On September 21, 1595, Don Juan de Oñate’s petition and contract for the conquest of New Mexico was presented to Luís de Velasco, the viceroy of Nueva Vizcaya.  Already a wealthy and prominent man, he sought to turn the Indians’ wealth into his own and had requested the assignment after hearing rumors about golden cities in the vicinity. Oñate was granted the commission and set about recruiting men for his expedition.

Bird’s Eye View of the City of Santa Fé, N.M., 1882. Beck & Pauli, lithographers; Madison, Wis: J.J. Stoner, 1882. Panoramic Maps. Geography & Maps Division

After many delays, Oñate finally began the expedition in 1598 with approximately 200 men, accompanied by their families and servants. The expedition crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso and split up into smaller groups to search for treasure. Some of his men wanted to return to Spain, but Oñate squashed potential deserters by executing several who had attempted to leave. He used brutal force against the Ácoma Indians, who had rebelled and killed several of Oñate’s men.  Retribution and the severity of Oñate’s actions after reconquering the pueblo terrified other pueblos and the Spanish priests complained that the Indians distrusted the Spanish—making their conversion difficult.

Pueblo of Aconia [i.e. Acoma], N.M. c1899. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1601, Oñate set out to find the legendary golden city of Quivera. After years of failure, he returned to find much of his colony deserted. Although his colonization methods were horrific, Oñate is credited with establishing a colony in New Mexico and exploring the geography of the region.

In 1607, Oñate resigned as governor. He was tried and sentenced in 1614 for his cruel actions and ineptitude in ruling the colony. Oñate was fined, banished from New Mexico in perpetuity, and exiled for four years from Mexico City and its vicinity; he also lost his titles as governor and captain general of New Mexico. He appealed his convictions several times after his banishment from Mexico City had elapsed. Evidence of a pardon, likely granted between 1622 and 1624, is inconclusive.

“Tened Piedad, Dios Mío” (Have Pity, My God)
Luis Montoya and Ricardo Archuleta, unaccompanied vocals.Recorded in Cerro New Mexico, August 9, 1940.
Hispano Music & Culture from the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection. American Folklife Center Listen

By encouraging further European settlement, efforts led to the founding of Santa Fe in 1610—America’s oldest capital city. Congress established the Territory of New Mexico in 1848 at the conclusion of the Mexican War. On January 6, 1912, New Mexico became the forty-seventh state.

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Today in History – September 20

On September 20, 1853, Elisha Graves Otis sold his first “hoist machines,” or elevators, featuring an automatic safety brake that he had recently patented. His seemingly simple invention—guaranteed to stop a rising platform from falling if the ropes that held it broke—not only launched Otis’s business, but made possible the development of passenger elevators. Elevators enabled the modern high-rise building. Before 1850 most buildings were no more than six stories tall, but today’s skyscrapers range from fifty to more than one hundred stories in height.

New York Crystal Palace for the exhibition of the industry of all nations/ designed by Carstensen & Gildemeister, N.Y. Carl Emil Doepler, artist; Nagel & Weingärtner, lithographer; New York: Goupil & Co., c1852. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

Otis opened his small enterprise on the banks of the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, in a space where he still worked as the foreman of a bedstead factory. At first few people, including Otis himself, recognized the full implications of his new invention. He only abandoned plans to join the California gold rush after receiving an unsolicited order for two freight elevators with safety brakes. To produce them, he went into business with his sons Charles and Norton.

In the elevator [of the Washington Monument]. 1887. Illus. in: Hutchins and Moore, A Souvenir of the Federal Capital. 1887, p. 86. Prints & Photographs Division

Lacking further orders, however, Otis arranged with P. T. Barnum to publicly demonstrate his device at the first American world’s fair in New York City. During May 1854, as the legend goes, Otis would mount an open elevator platform installed at the center of the Crystal Palace exposition hall, hoist himself to the ceiling, and with the dramatic flash of a saber, cut the rope. As the platform began to plummet toward the ground, Otis’ patented safety brake kicked in with a jolt and broke the elevator’s fall. “All safe, gentlemen, all safe,” became his famous refrain. This showmanship launched the elevator industry, so that by 1856 Otis’s sales totaled twenty-seven elevators.

Broadway: The Store of Messrs. E. V. Haughwout and Co. Illus. in The Illustrated London News, April 2, 1859. Prints & Photographs Division

The world’s first commercial passenger elevator was installed by Otis in 1857, at the E. V. Haughwout & Company department store in New York City. Powered by steam, it rose at a speed of forty feet per minute. Early passenger elevators featured posh decorations and seating and were controlled by conductors. Hotels such as the Occidental in San Francisco, the St. Charles in New Orleans, and Congress Hall in Saratoga Springs, were among the first structures to adopt passenger elevators. A Saratoga guidebook for 1872 reported of Congress Hall that “broad, commodious stairways, with the finest elevator in the country, render every portion readily accessible… The proprietors have endeavored to incorporate into this hotel everything that can afford comfort and pleasure, at whatever expense.” 1

The Chicago Building of The Home Insurance Co. of New York. William LeBaron Jenney, architect; Boston: L. Prang & Co., [1885]. Prints & Photographs Division

The passenger elevator paired with steel frame construction techniques made the development of the skyscraper possible. Generally considered the world’s first skyscraper, William Le Baron Jenney’s ten-story Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago was the first to incorporate steel as a structural material. Built in 1885, it was serviced by four passenger elevators. The 1913 Woolworth Building boasted twenty-six elevators; the 1931 Empire State Building required fifty-eight. The first fully automatic self-service elevators were installed in Dallas, Texas, in 1950. Twenty years later, elevators in Chicago’s John Hancock Center soared upward at 1,800 feet per minute and, until its catastrophic destruction on September 11, 2001, the 110-story World Trade Center in New York operated 252 elevators and 71 escalators manufactured by Otis.

Idlewild Airport Arrivals Building. Escalator. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer for Mears Advertising Co., July 23, 1958. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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Today in History – September 19

On September 19, 1819, English poet John Keats, inspired by the beauty of the changing season, wrote “To Autumn,” External a three-stanza ode to the splendor, bounty, and melancholy of fall.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…

John Keats, “To Autumn”

Trees. Maple trees. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Meditations on the tension between the transcendent nature of ideals and the constancy of change in the physical world, Keats’s odes are considered his greatest poetic accomplishment. With the exception of “To Autumn,” written in September, the odes were composed between March and June of 1819. During this intense period of mourning his brother’s recent death while struggling with his own fatal illness, Keats carried on an impassioned love affair with Fanny Brawne to whom he later became engaged.

Born in London, England, in 1795, he trained to become a surgeon before devoting himself to poetry in 1817. John Keats died of tuberculosis on February 23, 1821. Just twenty-five years old, his death cut short the life of a great poet.

Site of Thoreau’s Hut, Lake Walden, Concord, Mass. c 1908. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Close observation and description of the natural world characterized the poetry of the English Romantic Movement. Interested in the relationship of humans to the natural world, poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats profoundly influenced both the American Transcendentalists and the Conservation movement.

American writer Henry David Thoreau continued the tradition of the Romantic poets in his prose journals. In his journals he describes the seasonal changes of the woods around Concord, Massachusetts, and the lives of the animals and plants who were his closest neighbors during the years he spent living in a cabin on Walden pond. In the posthumously published Excursions, Thoreau describes a magnificent red maple tree:

Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape?

Henry D. Thoreau, “The Red Maple” in Autumnal Tints. Published in Excursions. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1863. p227. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

West Virginia. Highway scene II. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
Trees. Trees in Rock Creek Park during autumn. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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Free to Use and Reuse: Work in America

These images depict a diversity of work in America, as found across collections generated by the American Folklife Center’s field survey projects between 1977 and 1998. In urban and rural communities–and in settings encompassing traditional occupations, small businesses, factories, and natural resource management–you will find in these photographs a wide range of people engaged in jobs that contribute to economies, individual identities, and cultural communities.

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Today in History – September 18

On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington delivered his famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech also known as the “Atlanta Exposition Speech” at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. Washington, the founder and president of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), was the first African-American man ever to address a racially mixed Southern audience. He used the occasion to advocate a moderate approach to race relations in the New South:

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.”

Address of Booker T. Washington…opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition.” Atlanta, Ga., September 18, 1895. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Booker T. Washington… Copyright C.M. Battey, c1917. Prints & Photographs Division

Weary of the violence and turbulence that attended Reconstruction in the South, Washington’s philosophy of self-help, political gradualism, and accommodation to the ideology of race appealed to most whites and many black Americans.

When Prof. Booker T. Washington…stood on the platform of the Auditorium, with the sun shining over the heads of his hearers into his eyes, and his whole face lit up with the fire of prophecy …It electrified the audience, and the response was as if it had come from the throat of a whirlwind.

James B. Creelman. “The Effect of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Speech,” described in the New York World, September 19, 1895. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, on the plantation of James Burroughs near Hale’s Ford in Franklin County, Virginia. In 1865, his family moved to West Virginia where Washington worked for a short time in a salt furnace and a coal mine. While attending the Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Virginia, Washington came under the influence of school founder Samuel Chapman Armstrong whom he credited with instilling in him a strong work ethic. After graduating from Hampton, Washington returned to Malden, West Virginia, and taught school for several years.

Alabama Hall, Tuskegee Institute, Ala. c1906. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1881, Washington established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. With his political savvy and talent for fund-raising, he quickly transformed the small collection of dilapidated buildings into one of the finest and most renowned African-American educational institutions in the country.

From 1895 to 1915, Washington was probably the most politically powerful African American in the country. Highly regarded by Northern philanthropists, lauded by Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and hailed as a leader by members of the African-American press, Washington’s authority crossed racial lines. He received honorary degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College. His autobiography, the classic Up From Slavery, has been translated into many languages and read all over the world. Overcome by a life of service and hard work, Washington died on November 14, 1915, at the age of fifty-nine.

Let down your bucket
Where you are:
Your fate is here
And not afar
You may carve a dream
With an humble tool
And the tallest tower
Can tumble down
If it be not rooted
In solid ground.

Drafts of Langston Hughes’s poem,”Ballad of Booker T.,” May 30 – June 1, 1941. Langston Hughes Collection. Manuscript Division

Challenge to Washington’s Leadership

Some African-American leaders, including W. E. B. Du Bois, rejected Washington’s emphasis on gradual economic and social advancement in favor of immediate political and intellectual empowerment. A Fisk graduate with a Harvard doctorate, in 1905 Du Bois organized an “anti-Bookerite” movement calling for immediate political and social equality. In 1909, Du Bois’ group joined with white liberals to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP battled racial injustice through the legal system. In 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson ruling public school segregation violated rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Portrait of Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, July 18, 1946. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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Today in History – September 17

On September 17, 1787, members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the Constitution. Two days earlier, when a final vote was called, Edmund Randolph called for another convention to carefully review the Constitution as it stood. This motion, supported by George Mason and Elbridge Gerry, was voted down and the Constitution was adopted.

James Madison, later known as the “Father of our Constitution,” was among the most influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention. His notes form the largest single source of materials for Farrand’s Records, one of several collections in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America

James Madison, fourth President of the United States. Gilbert Stuart, artist; Pendleton’s Lithography, ca. 1828. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The product of four months of secret debate, the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and proposed an entirely new form of government.

Adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777, but not ratified by the states until 1781, the Articles of Confederation created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government. With the passage of time, the defects in the Articles of Confederation became apparent. The Continental Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power. Congress could not raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the voluntary agreement of the states.

Events such as Shays’ Rebellion, an armed uprising by debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786 and early 1787, exposed the weaknesses of the federal government and galvanized calls for revising the Articles of Confederation.

In an effort to deal with problems of interstate commerce, a convention in Annapolis was held in September 1786.  Led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the delegates at the Annapolis Convention issued a proposal for a new convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

On February 21, 1787, the Continental Congress called for a national convention to meet in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. By May 25, the state delegates had reached a quorum and the Constitutional Convention officially began. George Washington was selected unanimously as president of the Convention.

From the outset, delegates clashed over issues of state sovereignty while small and large states battled over the distribution of power. Fears of creating a too powerful central authority ran high. The Convention tackled basic issues including the essential structure of the government, the basis of representation, and the regulation of interstate trade. As he submitted the Constitution to the Continental Congress, George Washington acknowledged the difficult task the Convention faced:

George Washington, first president of the United States. Gilbert Stuart, artist; Pendleton’s Lithography, ca. 1828. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be preserved; and, on the present occasion, the difficulty was increased by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests…thus, the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.

Letter from George Washington to the Confederation Congress, accompanying the Constitution, September 17, 1787.
Annals of Congress. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

Although the Constitutional Convention met for the last time on September 17, 1787, public debate over the Constitution was just beginning. The Constitution specified that at least nine states ratify the new form of government, but everyone hoped for nearly unanimous approval. As the states called their own ratifying conventions, arguments for and against the document resurfaced. Writing under the pseudonym Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay defended the proposed plan in a series of newspaper articles, later collected as the Federalist Papers.

The Constitution was officially adopted by the United States when it was ratified by New Hampshire on June 21, 1788, the ninth state to do so. The first Congress under the new Constitution convened in New York City on March 4, 1789, although a quorum was not achieved until early April. On April 30, 1789, President George Washington delivered the first inaugural address, and within his initial term the first ten amendments—known as the Bill of Rights—were adopted, establishing the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens and assuaging many fears associated with the relatively strong central government the Constitution provides.

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